Reviewed by Sarah Lockwood
Presented by Henley Street Theatre and Richmond Shakespeare, Death and the Maiden is an intense hundred minutes including fifteen-minute intermission. Paulina Silas was a victim of state-sponsored abuse under an unnamed regime, although based on the brutality of the 1973 Chilean coup. Fifteen years later, when her husband brings a guest home, Paulina recognizes the voice of her torturer and takes justice into her own hands.
The small theatre was swathed in suspense. Even though I’d been warned about the blank gunshot, I jumped when it fired, fully absorbed in the intensity on stage. Fitting the adult nature of the plot, Death and the Maiden is dense with adult language, violent and sexual actions, and troubling images. Mature 16-year-olds may learn from the play, but generally speaking, I’d recommend it for eighteen and up.
The simple terrace set lets the actors take in the spotlight, framed by a striking backdrop of mangled and bloodstained clothing. Katrinaha Carol Lewis, who plays Paulina, is captivating. Her raw emotion draws compassion, igniting the first questions of the play. What would Justice mean for Paulina? Is that the key to her recovery? Or is forgiveness? Can we even ask her to think about forgiveness? What if Paulina extracted her own revenge?
Whether or not Roberto Miranda, played by Christopher Dunn, was the torturer in question or the victim of Paulina’s distorted memory remains a mystery. Dunn balances on this fence expertly; he seems bewildered enough that he could be innocent, yet he’s not quite likeable. Dunn also gets mad kudos for sitting hog-tied to a chair with a hood over his head for the entire intermission, adding to our thought-provoking discomfort as an audience.
Gerardo Escobar, played by David Clark, is caught in the middle, playing mediator and attorney for Dr. Miranda. You can’t help sympathize with Clark’s likeable interpretation as Gerardo struggles to support his wife through her recovery, raising further questions. What can a non-victim do to facilitate recovery? Can you move on without confronting the truth? Is this even a problem you can solve, an event from which you can “move on”?
Named for the Schubert quartet Paulina’s captors played during her torture, Death and the Maiden is not uplifting. It is thought provoking. A fifteen-minute talk-back after the show allows actors, audience, and a guest speaker to begin to discuss the questions that flood the experience.
I noticed how my fellow audience members struggled with the lack of a definitive culprit. We wanted to be able to place the blame on poor Christopher Dunn, who, it seems we’d nearly forgotten, is an actor following a purposely-vague script. This witch-hunt was telling of our reactions to violence as a society. If a perpetrator can be named, we can all go to sleep at night – right? Death and the Maiden, and the following discussion challenge audience members to look beyond the blame game and look inward. What can we as individuals do to be more compassionate, to stand up for what is right? What about as a nation? As a society?
I applaud director Gary C. Hopper, and the entire crew at the merged Henley Street Theatre and Richmond Shakespeare group for taking on this important, awakening piece. Given the number of questions left for the car ride home and the new wave that came up as I began to write this review, you could say Death and the Maiden will not leave me for some time. Prepare to feel a little uncomfortable and challenge yourself intellectually, ethically, and emotionally. Go see Death and the Maiden.
Death and the Maiden runs February 6 through March 1, 2014 at Gottwald Playhouse at Richmond CenterStage | Fridays and Saturdays: 8pm, Sundays, February 16 & 23: 2pm
Presented by Henley Street Theatre and Richmond Shakespeare. To purchase tickets: 800-514-3849, or go here: Henley Street Theatre